Originally published in Winter 1992 issue of The American Muslim
Whenever I hear a Christian and a Muslim talk with each other about religion, I can’t help but feel they are talking in two different languages. Each speaks in his or her own tongue and leaves the meeting satisfied that his or her own point has been made and proven. Yet, it seems to me that neither has really understood the other. I am afraid this will, in the long run, be more detrimental than good for relations. An appearance of communication instead of actual communication can be a foundation for further misunderstanding.
As a person who was raised Christian and who chose Islam as an adult as her form of worship, these meetings are especially distressing. Please allow me to offer to the community for consideration, some observations and commentary. The best way I can express these is by continuing the metaphor of language.
Although Christianity has many sects, (perhaps we can think of these as dialects), there are common denominators that can be heard. These denominators are akin to verbs, since the language of Christianity is learned through experience.
Take, for example the, act of witnessing. A Christian will not begin a conversation over dogma. He or she will witness as to what has personally happened in his or her life upon having met and accepted Jesus as savior and/or having prayed to Jesus. It is an emotional relationship that is formed. The relationship continues and develops through devotion. Often the devotion involves all the senses - from incense for the smell, music for the hearing, to dance for the body. Jesus becomes a personal friend, always understanding, ready and forgiving, who has divine powers able to aid one in all things. Throughout the experience, man’s relationship to the divine is perceived from the human perspective. Jesus lived and experienced these things - therefore, he can understand and forgive. An intimacy is formed, almost a romance.
The Scriptures then serve like love letters linking the lovers through time and space. Perhaps there are contradictions in them, but the human heart can comprehend contradiction. Our own daily relationships with each other are fraught by contradictory impulses that coexist. Dogma is secondary to the experience of Love. The feeling of well-being in one’s own life is proof. One is not alone. One always has a friend. Therefore, it is not a surprise that salvation depends upon an act of what for man would be the supreme proof of love, i.e, giving up one’s life.
Into this framework steps a Muslim who will say, “But that doesn’t make sense!”, and who will proceed to nitpick at the contradictions in the love letters. For one thus in love, this rational approach is rather offensive. After all, who can comprehend God? It is an approach devoid of emotion, lacking heart. It only proves the speaker has not met and does not know. i.e., has not experienced - the love that is special.
I believe this scenario happens because Islam is a language of nouns. (Again, I am speaking metaphorically). The language of Islam is learned by acknowledging and defining experience.
One of Adam’s primary tasks was to name what was created. This is a call for intellect. It is a call for language. It is a call to define.
From the beginning of God’s relation to Man, God has made Man utilize that which distinguishes him from the rest of Creation. We are warned to guard our intentions. We are told always to consider the signs of God, to look to Creation and reflect. We, ourselves, are part of this Creation. We are among the signs of God. Our very breath is praise of God - and knowing this, that we are breathing and acknowledging that this is from God Alone - this is part of worship.
What can be more intimate than such a relationship? The real beauty of it all is that the human relationship with the divine is originated and defined by the One Who is worshiped - God. It is a relationship that is inherent in the human condition. One need not fear standing alone for one cannot exist or stand without God. He is closer than one’s jugular vein. All depends on Him. So what greater Love can there be than complete surrender?
Look at history: human messengers sent as examples with instructions for mankind - messages directed to his intellect -to KNOW how to be, how to live, how to please God, and in return, be pleased ourselves. It is no wonder, then, that the last Prophet (peace be on him ) should be the one to bring the greatest gift: Direct Words.
With the Qur’an, God has honored Man and shown him great respect. In return, Man claims his right by accepting his place in Creation and acknowledging that all comes from and depends upon God. Not only would it be disrespectful, it would be a denial of one’s own nature to assume that salvation can come from other than God. How, then, can the two languages of Christianity and Islam really communicate with each other? I suggest we, as Muslims, learn to speak the language of experience. All the signposts to the truth are inherent in the human state. God has made it so, and He has surrounded us with signs.
Why not speak of the beauty of surrender? Why should we not declare our love? We need not do the other person’s reflecting for him. In this, we would deprive him of a basic component of worship. Just call him to reflect.
Why not present our love letters? God can do what we cannot. Perhaps then our Christian brethren will see that it is in our very nature to agree. Perhaps then they will begin to recognize themselves by God’s terms. Copyright 6-22-92. May not be reprinted without permission of the author.